Back at the beginning of the 1990s, two mixed-gender Australian bands looked set to have long and successful careers ahead of them. Falling Joys and the Clouds shared many things: most often stages, including at festivals, but also management and female singer-songwriters – two, in Clouds’ case – with unique voices and visions. Both peaked early with classic debut albums, but were unable to sustain their momentum.
Now both are back, on a joint tour (delayed halfway through by a bout of food poisoning suffered by the Clouds’ Tricia Young) that’s all but sold out. There’s clear affection for both bands – the Triffid is full when Falling Joys take the stage just before 8.30pm – but there’s also some cobwebs to be shaken off: the power-pop gem Shelter lurches to a premature conclusion, and Puppy Drink has a false start before the band realises they’re in the wrong key.
Not that anyone minds too much. The crowd – mostly peers of the band, though a few parents have brought their teenage offspring along – is just happy to have them back. As we should be: Suzie Higgie’s songs still exude warmth and depth, and while the songs from 1990’s Wish List still shine brightest (Shot In Europe; Jennifer), the selections from the following albums Psychohum and Aerial underline how much her voice has been missed.
But none so much as their beloved single Lock It, which elicits a cheer that brings a clearly moved Higgie to a momentary pause. It’s a timeless, life-affirming song that captures the vulnerability of love’s first consummation with big open chords in the chorus and lyrics that act as a sort of female complement, or counterpoint, to Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me. Like that song, it wasn’t a hit, but it feels like a standard now.
The Clouds are less reliant on nostalgia. There’s a new single, Beautiful Nothingness, following a EP from last year, Zaffre. And from the moment they hit the stage, they’re tight, precise and muscular: the combined voices and harmonies of Jodi Phillis and Young have lost nothing, Dave Easton is one of Australia’s more unassuming guitar heroes (though Phillis has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, too) and Raph Whittingham is a powerhouse on drums.
When they first appeared, the Clouds occasionally suffered from unflattering and unfair comparisons to the Pixies. There were superficial similarities, but with Phillis and Young out front, the literary and psychological bent of Phillis’ lyrics especially, and the unusual, shifting time signatures of their songs, the band had more in common with that band’s Boston contemporaries Throwing Muses, and with Australia’s Go-Betweens.
It would be easy for them to rely on songs from Penny Century, released in October 1991, but we only get a few tracks from that album: Wednesday Night, Foxes Wedding and the closing Hieronymus. The rest of the set spans the remainder of their underrated later career, opening with the rapid-fire smash and grab of Here Now, from their overlooked 1996 album Futura.
“This song isn’t about dicks,” Young says by way of introduction to Bower Of Bliss, which is actually about, well, the exact opposite: where Lock It is all sweetness, Phillis challenges a lover to “come and slip downstream to the root of your fears”. On one hand, it’s a surprise the song achieved moderate Triple J airplay, on the other it’s a shame its magnificent glam-rock strut wasn’t a huge hit, and it’s the highlight of the set.
We get a number of other songs from the troubled Thunderhead album, including Domino – the track that writer Craig Mathieson noted saw the band’s cards marked by label Polydor, after Phillis had her voice slowed down to a speed that made her voice sound like a man’s. It was as an act of commercial sabotage at a time – post-Nirvana’s Nevermind – when the independent scene and the mainstream were uncomfortable bedfellows.
It’s a different time now. There’s an insuperable gulf between what remains of the music business and a million artists making music in their bedrooms or makeshift studios on shoestring budgets with total creative freedom. But that independence and feminist spirit shown by the Clouds were exemplars for a new generation of Australian female artists, and their work sounds just as fresh today. Let’s hope there’s more of it to come.
Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…
20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)
This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.
19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)
This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.
18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)
A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?
17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)
Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.
16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)
If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)
15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)
Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.
14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)
“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.
13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)
A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.
12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)
Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?
11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)
What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.